New Internationalist

Nigeria’s elections

The 2011 Nigerian elections started off poorly. Two weeks later they have descended into carnage, political back biting and the deployment of thousands of troops. On Saturday 2 April, at approximately 1 pm, INEC (Independent Nigerian Electoral Commission) Chairman Mohammed Jega announced the National Assembly elections would be canceled due to administrative failures. The necessary paperwork and voting materials had failed to reach all the polling stations in the country.

Jega said the elections would now be held on Monday 4 April, but within 24 hours the new election date was changed for a second time to Saturday 9 April. The Federal and state government elections were also postponed to 16 and 23 April respectively. What is even more disgraceful is that only the day before, Jega had announced with much pomp and ceremony that INEC were ready for the elections. Surely he must have known INEC was NOT ready and would not be ready for at least another week. Worse still, the voting process had already begun and in some places people had actually cast their votes. The words ‘gross incompetence’ easily come to mind, but the last minute announcement and Nigeria’s horrendous record of election fraud created the suspicion that there was something else at play here.

Three weeks later and the elections are nearly over. The National Assembly elections took place on 9 April with a high turnout and reportedly less fraud than in any previous Nigerian election. The country as represented on Twitter, Facebook, Nigerian blogs and pundits were optimistic and expressed the belief that something significant had changed in Nigeria. For once Nigeria had managed to hold ‘free and fair’ elections. Yes, there were reports of rigging and even a video showing one woman in rigging action; disappearing ballot boxes later found in people’s homes and such, but on the whole the National Assembly elections appeared to have been relatively free of widespread fraud.

The Presidential elections on 16 April were very different – or rather more of what we have come to expect of Nigerian elections. There have been increasing reports of fraud. On Monday 18 April the incumbent president Goodluck Jonathan was declared the winner. Prior to the elections, Amnesty International had reported over 100 election-related deaths, many of which were candidates or their supporters killed, three were children. In the 24 hours prior to the presidential elections, tweeters began reporting outbreaks of violence in parts of the Niger Delta, particularly in the President’s home state of Bayelsa.

24 hours after the polls closed, reports of outbreaks of violence in the north of the country began to emerge. Supporters of the CPC candidate Mohammed Buhari took to the streets in Kaduna, Sokoto, Gombe, Bauchi and Kano. Already claims of figures as high as 48,000 people have been displaced in Bauchi and slowly numbers of wounded and dead are being reported; the latter stands at 500. Although Buhari has condemned the actions of his supporters, he has also lodged a complaint stating the election results were false and claims he has evidence of rigging which is bound to fuel the violence.

The use of the Twitter hashtag #NigeriaUprising to describe the protests on the street is an interesting one. It marks a departure from previous violence which has been rightly or wrongly depicted as being driven by the violence of poverty in the form of religious and ethnic prejudices. One blogger, Tatalo Alamu, described the violence as:

‘This is not an exultant crowd waiting for a political emancipator. This is a traumatized mob waiting for a messiah. There is a feral frenzy to these fellows; there is the manic glint of the politicized fanatic in their eyes; there is an all consuming raw anger which is implacable in its thirst for vengeance; there is a wild and merciless ruthlessness of resolve which does not recognize the template and rubric of law and order, or its corollary of logic and rationality… But the rest of the country must also fear. …Because of its traumatized antecedents and psychic disposition, this crowd is not rooting for a political saviour but its anointed messiah.’

Since the outbreak on 18/19 April, the majority of Nigerians online have been at pains to discredit the foreign media explanation that the violence is motivated by religious divides – the north being predominantly Muslim and the south being mostly Christian. It’s like a broken record. It is simplistic and lazy.

Closer scrutiny reveals that even previous outbreaks of violence in the Jos region have as much to do with ownership and use of land for agriculture, or pastoral settlers, and those who see themselves as indigenous, political rivalries and class. The present post-election violence can also be articulated within a complex set of interrelated factors. The fact is that the north of Nigeria has been living in a political, social and economic wilderness submissive to an ancient feudal system of wealth and patronage.

‘Nigeria: A nation divided’ is a visual representation of the inequalities across the country (via Akin). The masses have had enough and in the minds of many, Mohammed Buhari spelled that hope which is now dashed. At least that is how it appeared in the first few days. A week later and some aspects of the violence have changed.

Social media sites such as Twitter and Facebook are not outside the violence, as users exchange ethnic and religious abuse at each other. Political leaders have a responsibility to all Nigerians to not inflame the situation and both President Jonathan and Mohammed Buhari have condemned the violence. Unfortunately, there have been a number of statements by them and their representatives, which might have a negative impact on the violence. For example, Oronto Douglas, speaking for President Jonathan, claimed Buhari had ordered the lynching of anyone engaged in election fraud. Likewise Buhari himself blamed the ruling PDP party for the fraud and therefore the violence.

As I stated earlier, the violence has taken a new direction in the past few days with petrol bombs being used to target shops, places of worships and residences in the city of Kaduna. On Sunday 24 April 3 bombs exploded in Maiduguri, the capital of Borno state. Boko Haram, a radical Muslim rebel sect, issued a statement taking responsibility for the bombs; it’s hardly surprising that they have organized a series of attacks to further disrupt the political process by taking advantage of the widespread post-election violence.

‘We will never accept any system of governance apart from the one described by Islam because that is the only way Muslims can be liberated,’ it said.

‘We do not respect the Nigerian government because it is illegal. We will continue to fight its military and police because they are not protecting Islam.’

The final stage of the election took place yesterday, 26 April; for those states involved in violence, they have been postponed until Thursday 28 April. What difference two days will make is not clear. On Sunday 23 April a group of women in the capital Abuja staged a protest against the continued violence. I hope women from other cities and states will join their protest and build a nation-wide movement against these and other forms of violence in the country.

It has to start somewhere and women in Nigeria have always been at the forefront of collectively challenging injustice. Only last year women from Jos organised days of mass mourning to protest against both the violence and the failure of the government to protect them and their families. It can happen again.

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